A vividly portrayed, most unconventional protagonist dominates this punchy first novel from an award-winning British short-story writer.
She’s 30-year-old Lily O’Connor, a sufferer from temporal lobe epilepsy since early childhood, when her intemperate and unstable mother threw her down a flight of stairs. Lily tells her own story, which begins when her mother (from whom she was “taken away” following the aforementioned “accident”) dies, and Lily leaves her entry-level job taking tickets at an amusement park arcade and heads for London, seeking her two brothers. She finds—but discovers she has nothing in common with—sleek, self-absorbed Barry, a professional card player interested in nothing beyond training himself for the World Poker Open. But Mikey, the brother she loved, who had gone missing years earlier, is still nowhere to be found. Adrift in London (which she envisions as “a pile of bodies writhing like fat worms in a fisherman’s box”), Lily makes connections doomed to short-circuit: with Mel, the woman Cambridge grad and banker who takes her in (and undoubtedly loves Lily, secretly and guiltily); and with the cryptic Dave, a smug, secretive electrician (symbols clash here) who becomes her lover and abuser, echoing the pattern in which preadolescent Lily had been caught up with her mother’s creepy boyfriend Don. The details of such relationships are clichéd, and there’s too much of the social worker’s casebook in other’s observations of Lily. But whenever we’re inside her own thoughts and perceptions, the novel soars. Innovative typography helps: images of pills Lily takes, lined up in a row; skewed, distorted jumbles of letters, denoting her frequent convulsive seizures. And Lily’s voice is impressive—raw, angry, emotionally urgent, rising frequently to inchoate poetry (e.g., water in a canal runs “oily and slow …. sound[s] like treacle glooping. Stench like burnt toast”).
She’s a survivor like no other, and the mixed pleasure of inhabiting her jagged psyche is the best reason for reading this daring tightrope-walk of a novel.